The Trouble with French Identity

The riots in France reveal the cracks in its national project

G. Pascal Zachary

Labor’s gripes with the Loi Travail are many: At the top of the list is a provision that undermines large-scale collective bargaining agreements. (Force Ouvrière/ Flickr)

Some might say the scenes of street violence throughout France are a rehearsal for a full-blown civil rights movement that would emulate what happened in the United States 40 years ago. Others think the French are witnessing what Samuel Huntington calls the clash of civilizations,” writ small within their own borders – an inevitable and unsolvable clash between Muslims and Christians that will lead inexorably to new forms of exclusion and separation between immigrants and French natives.

Neither of these possibilities will be realized.

France, along with Britain, the United States and Canada, is one of the most popular destinations for Africans fleeing disorder or looking for better personal and professional opportunities. France remains an important metropole in the African universe. Tellingly, French universities are open and free for the top students of Francophone Africa, and living and working in France, even for the African cosmopolitan bent on returning to his home country, is an important rite of passage.

For a long time, what we Americans quaintly call race relations” were improving in France. As recently as 1998, French society was awakening to the possibilities of a diverse and multicultural society, and seemed to be embracing the advantages such a society offers. That year, on the soccer fields of France, the country’s national team won the World Cup with an ethnic rainbow of players. While France’s famous failure to acknowledge difference” in favor of emphasizing universal human ties had not vanished, the country was palpably proud of what could be accomplished when the talents of all its people were trained on the same goal.

In retrospect, the World Cup seems like a high-water mark for France’s rainbow coalition.” High unemployment and scant job creation narrowed opportunities for the French in general and immigrants in particular.

In 2002, the crypto-fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned the French elite by coming in second in the presidential election, winning a place in a run-off against Jacques Chirac. Le Pen relished the chance to bring his nativist, anti-immigrant message to a wider audience, and French multiculturalists braced themselves for further embarrassment. Instead, Chirac demolished Le Pen, who failed to raise his vote count. For the moment, at least, France’s approach to minorities survived serious scrutiny.

A fiery reckoning

The rage of France’s immigrant youth this fall comes after a trying summer when the politics of immigration reform collided with the reality of immigrant life. In July, the now infamous French minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, who oversees immigration rules, proposed a radical revamping of the country’s immigration system. The son of a Hungarian immigrant to France, Sarkozy wanted to attract more skilled professionals to the country and reduce the flow of migrants from former colonies, thereby creating a more diverse group of immigrants that would reflect the world’s population rather than a specific region.

The trouble is that African and Arab immigrants in France view any such change as a ratification of their inferior status, even though an increase in immigrants from Asia, Russia and other non-traditional places could ultimately strengthen the political hand of all immigrants in France. Sarkozy is perhaps the first French politician ever to tackle the immigration question at all creatively and he is one of the few French leaders to support affirmative action programs for ethnic minorities. 

But it now seems likely that crisis, rather than creativity, will define France’s immigrant question. (And certainly Sarkozy helped deepen the crisis by calling the rioters scum.”) The rioting in France has been characterized as a mishandling of immigrants, as an unacknowledged race issue gone awry. This is true as far as it goes.

But commentators fail to recognize that the French national project – maintaining a strong central government that on principle denies special consideration to any of France’s ethnic populations – is tightly bound to the French global project – promoting and sustaining French culture as a viable alternative to both Americanization and deracinated cosmopolitanism. In other words, the same logic that drives the French government to provide no special treatment to immigrants drives the French unitary state.

Of all the large European nations, France strives hardest for consistency and centralization. Language policy is a superb example. The Paris center relentlessly pushes the French language, warring against the persistence of regional dialects” such as Breton, Catalan, Alsatian and Occitan, which is spoken in a large region of southern France. Regional variation in laws and procedures, of the sort routinely accepted in the United States, is out of bounds in France. Consider Corsica, the Mediterranean island that France has ruled since 1768. French refusal to permit local control over schools and police – a staple of American life – spawned a violent separatist movement in the 70s and even today the island maintains tense relations with Paris.

The internal contradictions of the French national project are linked to the contradictions within France’s global project. For French politicians, then, any retreat from centralization toward policies that show favoritism or merely cater to the special needs of immigrants has the potential to ignite calls for similar treatment for the natives of the French regions. Not only Corsicans would want special treatment, but the French Basques as well. And so might the regions of the French north like Brittany. Such regional claims have been held in check for centuries, and it was partly because the Paris center was busy imposing a state language and a unitary state on its own internal regions that colonies – in Africa and the Caribbean notably – were incorporated, at least officially, as integral parts of the French nation.

However absurd the French approach seems now, it made perfect sense to Parisians of the 50s who were recovering from the Nazi occupation, the disastrous war in Vietnam and the quagmire in Algeria. Fifty years ago, the very viability of the French state was in question. Restoring pride in French culture meant, for many people, even some on the left, restoring a strong unitary French state.

Reactionary elements in French society, however, are similarly constrained by the same forces that limit the actions of French cosmopolitans. There is little chance for French chauvinists to curtail immigration, only alter its character. 

The success of France’s global cultural project – to promote the French language and culture as a prominent alternative to a homogenized, Anglo-American-style global culture – depends on people in developing countries, Eastern Europe and even Asia being able to access” the French motherland. French nationalists recognize the importance of America’s soft power” – the power that comes from people around the world desiring to live in America, to buy American goods, to act American. At a time of international outrage against official Washington policies and actions, the French know they have an unparalleled opportunity to push the French option. They cannot simply turn off the immigration tap. Indeed, the likelier choice, as Sarkozy has suggested, is that immigration will remain at current levels, but that immigration policy could well be de-coupled from France’s colonial legacy.

But with Paris and outlying cities smoldering, there is no chance of any constructive re-thinking of immigration. Chirac has ruled out any engagement until the violent protests stop. But as the immigrant youth have finally found the spotlight because they engaged in violence, they may realize rightly that resorting to peaceful defiance may cost them their leverage. The big question, then, is whether France is facing a day of reckoning over its failed immigration policies or whether, when order is finally restored and the angry youth retreat from the nation’s consciousness, the marginalization of immigrants remains unchanged. That would be, to put it in garbled French, déjà vu all over again. 

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G. Pascal Zachary is the author of the memoir Married to Africa: A Love Story and The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. From 1989 to 2001, he was a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal. Zachary has contributed articles to In These Times for more than 20 years and edits the blog Africa Works, about the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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